About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. (Acts 12:1 ESV)
James was John’s brother. He was one of the first disciples. He was also one of the first martyrs.
Herod arrested a few leaders from the young church. He saw how it pleased the jealous Jews and so he smelled blood in the water. He began a campaign of terror against the Christians, seeking to gain approval from the countrymen that had shunned his family’s rule for so long.
It had little to do with beliefs. It wasn’t about money, not for Herod. It was about popularity. It was about political power.
The wheels of opinion have long since shifted in America. Once secularist ideas have become commonly held world views. Things that shocked and stunned a few decades ago, are now embraced, promoted, and legitimized. As this trend continues there may come a day, some would argue that it is already here, when Christians are outright persecuted. It may happen simply so a politician can gain, or keep, the spotlight.
The possibility of persecution will not thwart the authentic followers of Jesus. It will instead galvanize the Bride of Christ to shine with the true love of Jesus. It will shine bright. It will draw people away from darkness and into the family of God.
Read: Acts 8:4-8
Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ. (Acts 8:5 ESV)
After Stephen’s brutal murder Christians came under very heavy persecution in Jerusalem. Saul rose up among the Pharisees and led the charge, arresting people in droves and dragging them off to prison and death. In many ways the death of Stephen was a catalyst for the spread of Christianity.
Philip, like many others, fled from the persecutors. He travelled to Samaria and began to preach the Gospel. Lives were being impacted by the truth of his message, because lives are always changed by the power of the Gospel.
But what if Philip had not preached in Samaria? What if he had merely tried to blend in to their culture, avoiding persecution and confrontation altogether?
Philip, like Stephen, like Jesus, and like so many since—simply refused to stay silent about the hopeful message of the Gospel. Philip preached the truth of the Word of God and it changed a city. Where will God use you to declare and demonstrate His love for those around you?
Read: Acts 7:51-60
But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” (Acts 7:55, 56 ESV)
Stephen preached the truth of Christ in Jerusalem and was shaking up the status quo. Grace and power followed his message. Lives were being changed. The religious elite were not happy—Jesus was gone but his followers continued to proclaim his life and message. They drug Stephen to court, trumped up false charges, and asked him to defend himself.
Instead of defending himself Stephen preached his final sermon. It was an exegetical masterpiece as he wound his way through the Torah, Prophets, and Psalms to declare Jesus as the promised Messiah. He delivered solid truth, unflinchingly, to a mob eager for blood. And it was more than they could handle.
As he drew near to the end of his message he looked up, perhaps for a measure of reassurance and comfort. The power of the Holy Spirit came upon him and he had a supernatural vision of God and Christ there with him. The declaration of Jesus’ position was more than the ruling authorities could handle.
Not only was Stephen obviously not going to be shut up, but here he was publicly declaring Jesus alive and well. He was stating outright their powerlessness. They were enraged. They attacked and killed him, stoning him to death.
The truth so offended these leaders that they were willing to forsake everything they pretended to serve in order to justify themselves. The truth of Jesus forces a reckoning. Some will accept it, many will reject it. Stephen gazed into Heaven and saw with supernatural eyes the wonders of God. I pray that the truth of Christ would prompt us all to do a little Heaven-gazing.
Read: Acts 6:8-15
And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people. (Acts 6:8 ESV)
Jesus’ followers are supposed to be like Stephen. We are supposed to be people who are full of grace and power. People who do great wonders and signs.
Stephen was so impactful as he ministered in the name of Jesus that it bewildered the extremely religious Jewish leadership. So much so that, just as they had done to Jesus, they decided to have Stephen killed. They concocted a phony trial with false witnesses, and they besmeared his reputation through villainous slander.
Stephen remained full of grace throughout. And it was only by the power of God that he withstood their torments. In fact, the whole ordeal only served to better illuminate the power of God at work in Stephen’s life.
Today when Christians talk about God’s power they are often looking for something supernatural or miraculous. I believe those things can and do happen, but perhaps more often the power of God works in His followers to sustain them through difficulty. Grace and power are fully at work when a lost sinner is made to shine like a saved saint.
And again he denied it with an oath: “I do not know the man.” (Matthew 26:72 ESV)
Sometimes I stop and think about what Jesus must have felt concerning Peter and his other disciples. He knew what was going to happen to him. He knew how hey would all turn their backs on him when trouble began. Yet, still he chose them.
Have you ever denied Christ? Maybe not by what you said, but what about by what you did? Do you think Jesus knew you what you would do or say when he first chose you? I believe that he did.
The beauty of the finished work of grace that Jesus completed lies in the serene undeservedness of Christ’s extended forgiveness. We do not deserve it. We could never deserve it. We will never deserve it. Our actions, attitudes, and ethics so often testify to our wretchedness. But Jesus loves us, chooses us, and saves us, even when he knows that at some point we have or will deny him.
Peter was perhaps his closest friend and denied him. Peter went on to do incredible things. We each have denied Jesus somehow sometime, but he chooses still to love us and use us to carry out his will in this life.
The servant girl at the door said to Peter, “You also are not one of this man’s disciples, are you?” He said, “I am not.” (John 18:17 ESV)
In every journey of faith there is a decision point. Truthfully there are many many times you will be faced with tough decisions. But some of those will be more difficult than others.
Jesus had been arrested and his disciples fled. Well, almost all of them. Peter and another disciple had followed Jesus into the compound of the Jewish High Priest. It was a dangerous place for them to be found.
While there Peter was identified as a follower of Jesus. Suddenly his anonymity was gone, and he was faced with a potentially mortal question. “Are you a disciple?” And Peter did the unthinkable, he denied Jesus.
You will probably find yourself in a similar place in this life. At some point down the road you will be on hostile territory, surrounded by people who don’t understand you, and they will pointedly ask if you have any allegiance to Jesus. Sometimes this can be an overt kind of persecution that leads possible violence. Or, as is often the case in western cultures, it is the prelude to quiet disdain and snarky rejection.
How will you answer the question when you are asked? Will the weight of the circumstances influence your decision?
I have said all these things to you to keep you from falling away. (John 16:1 ESV)
Have you ever known someone who walked away from their faith in Jesus? Perhaps not. Theologians and all manner of people smarter than myself have argued over even the possibility of such a thing for years.
Jesus said it was possible for people to fall away from their faith. He was warning his followers of some of the terrible things to come in hopes that they would maintain faith. He didn’t want the trials and afflictions of persecution to drive them away from their belief in him.
It worked. Nearly all of the original twelve disciples went on to give their lives for their belief in Christ. Christianity spread like a flame in a forest. People have continued to believe in Jesus as their savior for nearly two millennia.
In western culture we as Christ followers don’t generally face direct physical persecution. Instead we often come up against simmering ridicule, sarcastic academic scrutiny, and posturing political posers. It is sometimes a nearly subconscious or passive aggressive kind of tension that wears away at our faith, if we let it. We have a choice in all things, we choose to let these things push us closer to Christ, or we choose let them erode our faith. If we do succumb to the pressure until the foundations of our faith erode away, we too may one day run the risk of falling away.